Don’t Recruit Innovators by Using the Mirror

Don't Recruit Innovators by Using the MirrorHow do corporate culture and recruiting practices influence creativity and innovation? This question has been in my mind while reading some blog posts over the last couple of weeks. Amongst them was one from Scott Anthony in September’s HBR Magazine in an article entitled “The New Corporate Garage”. Scott has laid out some cogent arguments how larger companies will play an even greater role in the development of innovation. Another was from Jose Baldaia, Rebels, creative and disruptive people, are they a threat”? Jose asked whether companies treat rebels as a threat or a stimulus.

Of course the principle of diversity in thinking, as a positive benefit for creativity, is not new. It is generally accepted that the more viewpoints, experiences, modes of thinking and backgrounds you can bring to a challenge, the more likely it is you will come up with something new. The corollary is that if you gather the same people around the same table to come up with ways to solve the same problem, then – surprise, surprise – you’ll get the same answer.

Most large companies have, very sensibly, defined key parts of the culture they wish to create. They specify values; ways of working; and elements such as customer orientation, quality and safety. It often includes dress code even for non-customer facing staff, something that these days I still struggle with. The core items are then used by Human Resources teams to help build candidate profiles for recruitment – very logical. Whilst not going as far as IBM famously did in the 1960s to make staff look almost uniform, there is still a tendency to recruit people “just like us”. Yes, look in the mirror and try to find people who think and feel the same way as you do. The result is that new hires are selected to fit the corporate mould, easing integration and ensuring continuity of culture. Corporate life is more comfortable that way.

I’m not criticizing core values, standards and culture per se. They make sense in many parts of the company, but in the context of creativity and innovation it may be counter productive if followed to the letter.

The downside to this approach is that it decreases diversity of thinking. How will you foster rebels and mavericks if your selection system doesn’t let them through in the first place? If you continue to recruit using a template that describes what you are, one that is largely driven from history, you miss the opportunity to help create a different future.

It appears that the disconnect in large companies is often not realized. Professionals have the best of intentions, but focus on the short term goal of hiring people to fit a role, and pay less attention to the longer term potential of mix and diversity.

So what should large companies do about this (in my view this is much more of a large company challenge, smaller companies are less likely to have the numbers to deploy)?

First, they should step back and look at the big picture. What do we have? Where can a more diverse approach help? What skills and resources can add more value? How can we change the organization to create the appropriate space?

Second, they should consider the personal characteristics required. People who are more likely to rebel are usually outspoken, imaginative and determined. You shouldn’t expect them to conform to everything.

Third, innovation executives should align with HR to ensure the right people are recruited to fill the right roles with both the longer term and short term needs in mind. This conversation may also include discussion about whether certain people who are comfortable in the current culture may not fit in a more creative one.

Fourth, you should look outside for challenging devil’s advocates (consultants are good at this!); network with people from different industries; look for technological solutions from outside your industry; and encourage your people to get outside the building more often. This external approach will complement your internal initiatives.

This way you’ll gradually change the innovation culture from one that is largely homogenous to one that values difference; and that is more capable of developing differentiated innovation with competitive advantage. You will also experience more stimulus and challenge.

Finally, don’t forget that even if the executives responsible for innovation align with HR to increase diversity, the people “on the edge” need to be used in the right way; and they must be fostered and supported. Now that’s another topic…

image credit: marianixter

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Kevin McFarthingKevin McFarthing runs the Innovation Fixer consultancy, helping companies to improve the output and efficiency of their innovation, and to implement Open Innovation. He spent 17 years with Reckitt Benckiser in innovation leadership positions, and also has experience in life sciences.

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